Does Other-Power Mean That We Sit Back and Do Nothing? (Part 1 - A 2 Part Series)

The Resolve of Shinran Followers in the 21st Century Is Being Tested

In Pure Land Buddhism, followers often hear phrases such as “unconditional salvation”, or “we’ll be saved as we are.” As a result people end up looking down on Buddhism, thinking the Buddhist path is easy. That’s why after a few months of listening, some followers start complaining, “How much more should I listen? I’ve already listened this much.” To realize what kind of mindset we need to have when seeking salvation in Buddhism, let us learn from Shinran followers in Kanto 800 years ago.

Each of you has come seeking me, crossing the borders of more than ten provinces at the risk of your life, with one thing only in mind: to ask the path to birth in the land of utmost bliss. (Tannisho, Section II)

Many people would say they know good from evil, and feel no pressing need to hear Buddhism. Even among those who listen to Buddhism, few realize that Buddhist teaching concerns the crucial matter of birth and death1 and how to resolve it. Irresponsible remarks abound: “salvation is based on other- power faith; we’re all going to Paradise when we die anyway; there’s no need to listen earnestly.” Voices like these are heard on all sides.

But the second section of Tannisho contains an account of a harrowing confrontation between Shinran and people who risked their lives to hear true Buddhist teaching. Some background understanding is necessary, so let us first briefly examine the course of Shinran’s life.

Shinran was born in Kyoto at the end of the twelfth century, just before the tumultuous Genpei War.2 He lost his father at four and his mother at eight. Astonished by the realization that he, too, was mortal and would be next to die, at age nine he applied to and was inducted into the Tendai school3 of Buddhism at its head temple atop Mount Hiei in Kyoto.

Tendai monks sought to follow Buddhist precepts and fight off worldly passions4 in order to achieve enlightenment. For the next twenty years, Shinran’s life of rigorous ascetic training on Mount Hiei was a constant struggle with his blind passions. Try as he would to subdue the raging dogs of his passions, they never left him alone. He mused, “The winds of mortality may blow this way at any time. If I go on as I am, I cannot escape eternal suffering.” Feeling the urgency of his plight as death’s shadow crept ever closer, he lost faith in the teachings of Tendai Buddhism and resolved to leave the order.

Wondering if there was to be no salvation for him, no great teacher to show him the way, Shinran wandered the streets of Kyoto like a sleepwalker. Eventually he ran into a friend from Mount Hiei named Seikaku, through whose offices he met Honen, founder of the Pure Land School and a prominent man of the times. Day in and day out Shinran devoted himself to listening to Honen’s sermons, and one day, in a split second, he was saved by Amida Buddha’s Vow. He was then twenty-nine, and Honen was sixty-nine.

Oppression of the Pure Land School

Followers of Honen increased rapidly, their numbers swelling to include not only samurai and common people but also scholars of the Tendai, Shingon, Zen, and other schools of Buddhism, as well as members of the aristocracy and nobility. Fearful of the surge in popularity of the Pure Land School, the other schools felt a sense of crisis. They could not sit back and idly watch as their supporters in the nobility and aristocracy turned to Honen. Eventually they banded together and took the unheard-of step of directly petitioning the emperor.

In 1207 the Pure Land School was dissolved, teaching of the nembutsu was prohibited, and eight people, including Honen and Shinran, were banished. Four of Honen’s disciples, including Juren and Anraku, were executed. Shinran too was originally scheduled for execution, but thanks to the intervention of the former regent Kujo Kanezane, his sentence was commuted to exile in the northeastern province of Echigo.5 He was then thirty five years old. Honen was banished in the opposite direction, to Tosa6 on the island of Shikoku. Collusion between political and religious authorities led to this brutal oppression never before seen in the history of Japanese Buddhism. The persecution is referred to at the end of Tannisho.

(To be Continued)

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #32 | 2013, Does Other-Power Mean That We Sit Back and Do Nothing? (Part 1 - A 2 Part Series)

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